Patience in the early church

Arley Loewen | International

In the book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2016), Alan Kreider asks how the early church grew in the face of disgrace and death, without coordinated programmes for mission or efforts to attract outsiders. Church fathers insisted that believers make faith visible, specifically through patience, considered the highest of virtues. Three wrote treatises on this patience. Why was it so extolled? 

In his defence of Christianity, Justin (2nd c.) said, “When Christians live with integrity and visibility, by our patience…and meekness [Christians will] draw all men from shame and evil desires.”1

Pagan writers saw patience as a characteristic of lowly people. Tertullian (4th c.), however, said it is rooted in God Himself. Christ’s incarnation is the ultimate act of patience, as He bore the reproach and shame of people. This patience reflected a new way of life which, along with the hidden power of yeast (ferment) within the church, drew people towards the Kingdom and the church grew spontaneously. 

While the early church world is vastly different from the 21st century, this reading has led me to reflect in the following ways.

Patience and sacrifice

In Persio-Indian cultures, the virtue of jawanmardi (young manliness) is extolled as the greatest virtue (futuwwat/fatan in the Arab world) that embodies all the qualities of good men (courage, hospitality, generosity and more). However, the ultimate jawanmard willingly sacrifices his life for others’ benefit. Persians have told me they see Jesus as the greatest jawanmard. He gave His life away, pouring it out for others (kenosis—emptying of Philippians 2:6). 

Indeed, the Christ-like patience which the church fathers extolled is much deeper than waiting quietly for a bus. Rather, it is a sacrificial and enduring compassion for others, which our Lord embodied in His life and ultimately on the cross. We are to have that same attitude (patience). 

Patience and Christian witness

Secondly, as we witness unprecedented growth of Christian faith among Muslims in recent years, we see a similar phenomenon as in the early church. We note the push from within the Muslim world, a deep dismay at the present state in the Middle East which compels people to search for answers beyond their world. We also see the witness of compassion demonstrated by Jesus followers as they care for refugees and others. Yes, we must talk the gospel and explain the person of Jesus but, as Origen believed, “patience—Christians treating their neighbours well and behaving courageously in the [public] arena—is at the core of the church’s witness.” 2

Patient presence and the OM vision

Thirdly, our OM vision statement has galvanized the OM world. As we seek to implement this vision, let us put on the garment of patience, becoming visible among the people we serve. One team member working among refugees wrote recently, 

“An Afghan man and his wife wanted to come to the fellowship, but he had heard Christians get drunk, turn off lights in the service and grab someone’s wife. We assured him that this was all lies. He dared to come a few times, but became too busy with work. We trust he will bring his wife soon. 

“Another man who claimed faith was jailed for stealing. He was finally released. He acknowledged his sin and is experiencing real change. Our team member spends regular time with him and his wife.” 

Would these people be experiencing the new way of life if we are not patiently present among them? As these stories demonstrate, the vibrant community itself must be visible, tangible and accessible. If not, how can the unreached see Christ (dreams notwithstanding)? 

Cyprian, a church leader, wrote in 256 CE, “We are philosophers not in words but in deeds; we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them.”2 

I see in myself the tendency to boast about impact and numbers. Can we relax from pushing or tracking outcomes and overly coordinating efforts that easily run afoul? I want to believe in the divine ferment of God’s Spirit who draws people to the Kingdom and transforms them in a new way of living.

1. Quoted in The Patient Ferment, 16.

2. Ibid., 20.

Arley Loewen specialises in Persian culture, with an MA in Persian (Pakistan) and a PhD in Middle Eastern Civilizations (Canada). He directs Pamir Productions, media and discipleship for Afghans and teaches on Muslim-Christian themes. Exploring cultural themes in honour-shame societies, Arley occasionally runs seminars for professionals and college students in Central Asia. He and his wife Janice have been with OM since the early 1980s.

Published: Tuesday, 31 July 2018
Credit: Arley Loewen
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About Perspectives

Op-ed articles written by OM leaders on various global mission/Christian issues or topics.

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